The chairman of the state Senate's powerful budget committee relinquished the post Wednesday after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, mail fraud and other criminal offenses.
Prosecutors say veteran state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, used his official position for personal gain by accepting payments to help a supermarket chain expand in Maryland. Also named in the 18-count indictment were two former executives with Shoppers Food Warehouse.
"When businesses can obtain valuable government benefits by putting a senator on the payroll, it diminishes public confidence and disadvantages companies that refuse to go along with the pay-to-play approach," the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, said in a statement. "Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments."
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, a close ally, said Currie agreed to step down as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the state's $32 billion annual spending plan.
In a statement, Miller said he was "saddened" that the investigation resulted in an indictment but is "confident" that Currie will be exonerated.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, will lead the budget panel, Miller said.
Reached by telephone, Currie declined to comment. Dale Kelberman, his attorney, said the senator is innocent of any wrongdoing and was properly employed as a consultant by the grocery store, which is headquartered in his district.
Kelberman said Currie's work on behalf of Shoppers follows a long tradition of Maryland's citizen lawmakers holding outside employment, because the General Assembly meets for only three months a year.
Kelberman described the federal bribery case as "highly unusual" because it does not allege any secret cash payments. He noted that Currie paid federal taxes on his income from the grocery store.
Rumors of Currie's imminent indictment had circulated for months. The investigation into his dealings with Shoppers became public in May 2008 when agents raided his home in District Heights.
Currie, 73, is running unopposed for re-election. But Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said the indictment is likely to fuel anti-incumbent feeling.
"Sometimes, apparently, career politicians lose touch," Scott said. "It certainly re-emphasized the need for checks and balance in Annapolis."
The grand jury indicted the two former Shoppers executives, former President William White and R. Kevin Small, former vice president for real estate development, accusing them of filing contracts that falsely described Currie's work as minority outreach, community relations and public affairs. Prosecutors say the executives were in fact buying his legislative influence.
Bribery is frequently a difficult charge to prove because prosecutors must establish intent. All three men were charged with theft of honest services, a broad legal theory that states officials are legally bound to act in their constituents' best interests. The Supreme Court has significantly narrowed how prosecutors can use the law, saying that it must be connected with bribery.
The prosecutors also charged Currie and White with giving false statements to the FBI, a charge similar to one on which a federal jury convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich last month.
Separately, federal prosecutors struck a deal with Shoppers in which the Lanham-based company will pay a $2.5 million fine and admit to conspiring to bribe Currie. A judge must still agree to the deal.
"We chose to resolve this case so that we could put this matter behind us and focus on our current business initiatives," said Luke Friedrich, a spokesman for Shoppers' parent company, Minnesota-based Supervalue.
In the 48-page indictment, prosecutors allege that Currie accepted payments from Shoppers totaling $245,816 in exchange for helping the company navigate state bureaucracy from 2003 to 2008.
To track his favors, Currie created a document titled "Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers," in which he listed 12 state and legislative hurdles he had removed to benefit the company, according to the indictment.
Currie's list included securing state funds for a Shoppers store in Baltimore; state road improvements near stores in Prince George's County and Baltimore County; and facilitating state approvals in the construction of a store in Chillum, according to papers filed with the federal court. Currie wrote that he could "bring more opportunities" to the grocery chain because he was "in a unique position" to help the company, according to the indictment.
Other efforts by Currie included organizing meetings in Currie's office with secretary-level state officials to discuss state funding for a planned Shoppers store in Mondawmin Mall; phone calls to top officials requesting that the implementation of a potentially costly environmental regulation be delayed; a request from Currie for a traffic signal at the supermarket's Owings Mills location; and a meeting with a Prince George's County liquor board official to discuss transferring licenses from one store to another, according to prosecutors. Some of the work outlined in the indictment was performed by Currie and other work was done by his official staff, prosecutors said.
They noted that Currie did not report his work for Shoppers on his state ethics forms. Kelberman described the lack of disclosure as "mistakes" that were "not intentional."
Currie has been beset by other problems. He replaced his longtime campaign treasurer after filing a financial disclosure Aug. 10 which showed that $187,000 had been drained from the account with no explanation for how it was spent.
State prosecutors have also been investigating Currie's campaign spending after he was found to have used his campaign account to pay $41,000 to the Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge for help in the federal probe.
According to the office of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, campaign funds may be used only for investigations that relate to campaign spending; they are not permitted to be used on investigations into the public duties of elected officials.
Miller has said that in a second letter of opinion, Gansler indicated that the use of money was legal, but the Senate president has refused to make the letter public.
Currie's recent campaign fundraising has been lackluster, though his most recent report shows that some in his party are rallying around him. The report, which reflects 18 days of activity in August, discloses $5,534 in contributions, including a check for $2,595.92 from the Democratic Attorneys General Association and one for $2,438.43 from Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot. Currie's previous report showed that he raised $1,050 from January to August.
A spokesman for the attorneys general association said Gansler had requested that the funds be given to Currie to help pay for a sample ballot that supports all candidates in the district. Franchot's political director said the comptroller's check also was for that ballot.
The three delegates in Currie's district are Dereck Davis, Aisha Braveboy and Melony Griffith, all of whom are Democrats seeking re-election.
Timeline of events
December 2002: Currie sends Shoppers Food Warehouse a proposal saying he can offer "substantial assistance" to the grocery chain, prosecutors allege
November 2002: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller appoints Currie to chair the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee
Fall 2003: Currie meets with state budget and transportation officials to discuss financial incentives for Shoppers' planned expansion at Mondawmin Mall, including moving a state Motor Vehicles Administration facility to anchor the mall
December 2004: Currie requests delay of new environmental regulations that would be costly for the company, prosecutors allege
April 2005: After discussions with Shoppers, Currie pushes an amendment that would help the chain transfer liquor licenses, prosecutors allege
January 2006: Currie attends a meeting at which Shoppers officials request $3 million in improvements to roads near a planned store in the Ritchie Station Marketplace in Upper Marlboro, prosecutors allege
May 2008: Federal agents search Currie's home in District Heights and Shoppers offices in Lanham
The federal indictment
Charge 1: Conspiracy to commit bribery; Currie, White and Small
Charges 2-3, 8: Violation of Travel Act; Currie, White and Small
Charge 4: Violation of Travel Act; Currie and Small
Charges 5-7: Violation of Travel Act; Currie
Charge 9: Mail fraud and theft of honest services; Currie, White and Small
Charge 10: Mail fraud and theft of honest Services; Currie and Small
Charge 11-12: Wire fraud and theft of honest services; Currie, White and Small
Charge 13-14: Wire fraud and theft of honest services; Currie and Small
Charge 15-16: Wire fraud and theft of honest services; Currie
Charge 17:False statement to the FBI; White
Charge 18: False statement to the FBI; Currie